The Dates of the Battle of Britain
Someone has sent a message wondering about the official dates of the Battle of Britain and asking how it was that these were agreed upon. He suggested that because of the Blitz which continued into May 1941, we should look at the Battle as being longer than has been traditional.
The short answer is that we view the Battle as being from 10 July to 31 October 1940 purely because those were the dates given by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in his despatch. Interestingly, however, he makes it clear in his preamble that as far as he is concerned, the Battle of Britain began in September 1939 with the outbreak of war, because from that moment on, he felt Britain was in extreme peril and that Fighter Command faced a race against time to be ready to face any onslaught bythe Luftwaffe. For the purposes of his despatch, however, he chose 10 July ‘rather arbitrarily’ because that was the day the first large-scale Luftwaffe formation flew over England. Certainly, the men of 609 Squadron, for example, would have argued that the Battle started several days before that. I have argued in my book that the Battle of Britain began on 10 May 1940, when the Germans began their offensive against the west – after all, the RAF was fighting the Luftwaffe then and in fact, Fighter Command fought a very hard air battle over Dunkirk at the end of May and beginning of June.
It is also thanks to Dowding’s despatch – plus the propaganda of the day – that for the past seventy years we have viewed the Battle as almost solely RAF Fighter Command versus the Luftwaffe. Dowding was the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command and it was his task to write about his Command’s effort that summer. It was not his place to write about Bomber and Coastal Command, nor the part played by land and naval forces or by intelligence, nor even comment on the political war going on at that time. Interestingly, the subsequent official history of Bomber Command, for example, was ‘The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany’, not the strategic air offensive against German airfields in France, which is one of the reasons that Bomber Command’s heroic daily efforts against German targets in Northern France and the Low Countries has been so woefully neglected. Few people today realize just what an important part Bomber and Coastal Commands played during the summer of 1940 – or that they suffered proportionally far higher casualties than Fighter Command.
Yet as far as I am concerned, the Battle of Britain should be seen as more than merely a matter of conflicting of air forces. Britain and Germany had entered upon a gigantic clash of nations in the summer of 1940, in which for both sides the stakes could not have been greater. For Germany, short of resources, the west had to be subdued before any turn to the east; she had to avoid a war on two fronts, and so speed was of the essence. The longer Britain held out, the greater the draw on what limited resources Germany had. Yet never far from Hitler’s mind was the ho-down with the Soviet Union. Germany not only needed the vat resources the Soviet Union offered, but also needed to crush the threat Stalin’s Russia posed, for as Hitler was well aware, if he did not move against the Soviet Union, Stalin would, at some point, move against Germany. For Britain, on the other hand, not only was her own freedom at stake, but that of the entire free world. If she lost in 1940, she would become a puppet Nazi state, and the rapidly growing USA would be denied that crucial launch pad from which to strike back against Nazi Europe. As it was, it took until 1944, and with considerable British and Commonwealth help, before America was in a position to attack Nazi-occupied Europe. Without Britain, this would have been even further into the distance. Without a second front in the west to contend with, Hitler would almost certainly have won the Soviet Union – not in 1941, but later in 1943 or 1944, at a time when he had better built up his forces for the scale of attack required. This is not idle speculation either, but a very real scenario had Britain collapsed in 1940.
And so if we view the Battle of Britain in these terms, and start to appreciate just how vital a clash it was for both sides, it seems ridiculous to see the Battle as merely a few hundred Spitfires and Hurricanes battling against Messerschmitts and Heinkels. It is more than that – an all-encompassing war, and we see that Britain’s effort really was a united one. Those men manning the colliers, for example, tramping up and down the east coast under constant threat of mines, bombs and torpedoes, played their part every bit as much as the fighter pilots. After all, without them, the power stations would not have had their coal; without coal, they could not have produced electricity; without electricity, there would have been no Spitfires and Hurricanes produced in the aircraft factories. I prefer to see Fighter Command in 1940 as the fist of a boxer – only the edge of the glove strikes, but the whole weight of the body is behind the punch.
But more than that, so much of what subsequently happened in July-October, was dictated by the earlier events of May and June; it is an entirely artificial dividing line that has separated this period for so long. Indeed, in retrospect, we can see that Britain’s greatest day of peril was Monday 27 May, when it looked certain that most of the BEF would be left at Dunkirk, and when Churchill, only seventeen days as Prime Minister, faced a potentially government-breaking split in his war cabinet. At no other point that summer – or indeed the war – was Britain closer to defeat by Nazi Germany.
But the original question asked whether the Battle of Britain should be seen as going on until May 1941. Personally, I don’t think so, and for what it’s worth, I think October does mark the end of it. By that time, the Luftwaffe has been defeated – it is a fraction of the size it was on 10 May, aircraft production is horribly low, too many experienced pilots have been lost, and Germany has lost any remote chance of defeating Britain – or bringing her to the peace table for the foreseeable future. Invasion plans have been dropped, and although the Luftwaffe continued to cause much destruction across Britain’s cities, the damage was nothing like extensive enough to seriously hamper Britain’s war effort. It was a tragedy, lots of people were killed, and it occasionally hampered our war machine, but nothing more. Furthermore, by then Hitler had decided to turn to Russia far earlier than he had originally intended, in June 1941. And why? In order that he could then turn back to Britain and defeat her once and for all – and with her defeat, quash the threat from the USA.
Thus the Battle of Britain really was our finest hour, but in a far more comprehensive, complete and all-encompassing way than has general been given credit.
I have to agree that the “Official” start was with the 1st serious German air attack over the British Isles. But I guess if I were a combatant in the on going air battles from May 10 then the battle had already started.
I have an open quiz on my blog concerning another very important battle that was just as important to keeping a 2nd front active to relieve pressure on the Soviets. Visit my blog to try and answer the quiz or start a debate. See you at http://militaryhistoryofthe20thcentury.blogspot.com/ and I will respond to your ideas.
I would take serious issue with your contention that, had Britain been defeated in 1940, the Soviet Union would have been conquered, perhaps by 1943 or 1944. The war in the East was of an entirely different nature to that in the West, distances in the Soviet Union are unimaginable, as is the climate. The war in the East was not lost because Germany had to keep resources in the West – after all, a second front was only opened up in June 1944, when German forces in the East were in headlong retreat and the Soviet army was at the gates of Warsaw. The war in the East was lost because the Germans stupidly and brutally pursued a policy of annihilation which drove many, who would otherwise have been sympathetic to the removal of the Soviet regime, to oppose the Nazis. This, combined with the ability of the Soviets to use their vast space to move production East and carry out strategic withdrawals, and to use the extreme climate to their advantage, is what led to Germany’s defeat. The truth is that, after June 1941 the Western front was a sideshow. This does not denigrate the achievements of the British in 1940, it just puts them in perspective.